The Two C’s of Cycling

A constant issue and challenge in Portland is improving roadway conditions to make bicycling safer. I believe experienced — and even moderately skilled cyclists — could, through our own behaviors and over time, dramatically improve the traffic safety of city streets. We can do this, in part, by changing motorist’s and cyclist’s expectations of how cyclists behave on the streets, and how we should be treated. As individuals, we can help accomplish this by riding with Courtesy and Confidence, as outlined below. The goals of purposefully riding courteously and confidently is to win allies and educate road users.

My basic rules for riding courteously and confidently are:

1. Always yield to pedestrians.
2. Ring a bell when approaching to pass either another cyclist or a pedestrian.
3. Be pleasant to others (corollary: Don’t behave like a confrontational, righteous jerk).
4. Never run a red light.

1. Know and follow traffic laws, as they are your ally.
2. Take the lane when conditions merit.
3. Don’t rush.
4. Come to a complete and legal stop at stop signs whenever anybody else is present at the intersection.

The intent of riding with courtesy is to win allies, or at least not alienate more motorists and pedestrians. People walking are often startled — even frightened by cyclists behaving in a manner that appears reckless. A cyclist challenging a pedestrian for space on a shared path, riding aggressively on a sidewalk, or simply passing a pedestrian without an audible warning (“on your left” just doesn’t cut it — you need a bell) is frightening to many pedestrians. Anger develops from fright; every time this type of interaction plays out, one more person has one more reason to not want to promote increased bicycling in Portland. The same is true for rude our illegal interactions with motorists. Performing a risky maneuver on the street, and then responding to a honked horn with the universal salute is not a way to win support from people in cars. From my professional experience, I can assure you that such interactions create lasting negative impressions that make people less likely to support increased funding for expanding bicycling in Portland. Similarly, running red lights simply angers people who believe everybody should play by the rules — it’s like a slap in the face for many. Ironically, running reds rarely gains cyclists any significant time advantage over cyclists who stop for them.

The intent of riding with confidence is to educate road users by creating for them an expectation of appropriate and safe behavior. Knowing the law helps cyclists to ride confidently. State traffic law allows cyclists to not ride far to the right of a street when the travel lane is too narrow for safe side-by-side travel by a motor vehicle and a bicycle (ORS 814.430.c). One can argue that any travel lane narrower than 14′ is too narrow for such side-by-side travel, and very few lanes in Portland are that wide. Only when there is one lane in the direction of travel does a cyclist (“slow moving vehicle”) have to pull over for a faster motorist (“overtaking vehicle”). If there is more than one lane in the direction of travel, then a cyclist does not need to pull over at all (ORS 811.425). Riding in this manner sets an expectation that motorists cannot pass when conditions are not safe to do so, that indeed they will often have to drive slower in the presence of a cyclist. Importantly, when riding like this, or at any time, there is no requirement to ride fast. Many cannot ride fast. Motorists need to understand and expect this. [As do cyclists — fast and aggressive riders on some well-used Portland paths are creating unsafe and unpleasant conditions for other cyclists, not to mention pedestrians.] Such behaviors can be a powerful tool for riding safely and educating all road users; knowing the law and how it supports this is crucial.

Similarly, a cyclist coming to a complete and legal stop at a stop sign when any other road user is present in the intersection can have a powerful educational effect, especially when the cyclist is being followed by an automobile. Most people sorely need to be taught how to come to a legal stop. Since cars are so potentially injurious to others it is especially important that motorists stop. A cyclist coming to a complete stop both encourages and requires that motorists also come to a complete stop.

These are simple ideas and actions, but creating both positive impressions and consistent expectations can be transformative if they occur widely and frequently. Individual cyclists who behave well, legally, and confidently have the potential to educate a wide swath of Portland’s citizens as to what is expected and appropriate behavior when driving and bicycling.

I’d like to more fully flesh out these ideas and hear if there’s any agreement that they’re worth pursuing.

5 responses to “The Two C’s of Cycling”

  1. Roger, I think the points you make are excellent and practical (including the bell).

    My own experience is that part of the conflict arises out of the simple physics of kinetic energy. When you’re approaching an intersection on a bike, it’s tremendously tempting to not put a foot down, because you give away so much momentum and then have to put the energy back in to start up again. (Maybe someone can invent a bike with regenerative breaking!)

    So I think it’s important that you’re recongized that if the intersection is empty (and that should include being empty of pedestrians pedestrians!) it’s very reasonable for a cyclist to slow enough to get a good view of other people or vehicles, but not need to come to a full stop. I would hope the Oregon Legislature would actually make this legal at some point.

    I also think there is an ethic of kinetic energy involved. The person with the most kinetic energy (mass times velocity) has the most responsibility. So the person with the steel strapped around them in a car has the most responsibility, and the cyclist going 2-3 times faster than the pedestrian has more than that pedestrian.

    But everyone has the responsibility to be aware of the situation and follow the law when their paths intersect.

  2. I’d like to see adopted in Oregon the same type of law that has existed in Idaho for years. This Idaho state law allows cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs. This was proposed in the 2003 legislative session inn Oregon, but never made it out of the House (I believe).

    Most people don’t understand why a bicycle should be able to treat a stop sign as a yield while motorists should not. The difference has everything to do with the characteristics of their respective vehicles. Cyclists generally sit higher than motorists and have the ability to easily survey 360 degrees. This allows them to see anybody approaching the intersection well before they reach it, and well before a motorist can determine if anybody else is at, or approaching the intersection. The other difference is that cyclists often hear another vehicle approaching an intersection before they can see it. Motorists generally cannot, due to the noise of their own vehicles, and the fact that they are often enclosed.

    However, the law at this time is to stop, and I think it would benefit the cause of promoting cycling if cyclists did come to a complete stop any time there is anybody else at or approaching an intersection.

  3. A biking physics professor co-wrote a great article on why cyclists hate stop signs with all the numbers.

    The stop signs as yield bill in 2003 passed the house 47-9, but didn’t go anywhere in the Senate. It was House Bill 2768.

    Next session perhaps.

  4. I agree with your points, especially the ones dealing with ‘vehicular cycling’, i.e. sharing the road with other traffic as an equal.

    Particularly, the frequent running of red lights and stop signs I see vexes me when I commute on my bicycle. I would agree that Oregon law should be modified to allow a bicyclist to use the stop sign as an effective yield in a clear intersection. This is not the same as the people that I encounter every day that blast through 4-way stops simply because there is no cross traffic at the line. I personally equate how I proceed through an intersection to how a pedestrian would cross at the curb: slow to a speed that I can fully scan both directions of traffic before entering the road and then continue to monitor traffic as I proceed across the intersection.

    We clearly enjoy good support from the city and community for making the streets bicycle accessible and safe, but I feel there’s still room left for education of bicyclists and motorists in how to improve safety and coexistence. Why not have bicycle safety courses at community centers and as part of the physical education courses in high-schools?

  5. Thanks Roger for your post.
    I agree on both points. For me, since I do drive a car as well, I make it a point to “drive” my bike like its a car, since otherwise I might start riding my car like its a bike! Ouch!
    Cyclists should remember what all motocyclists know (and I remember from my motorcycle days) that being seen or rather not seen, brings the greatest risk. Behaving like any other vehicle, being out in the lane (not on a sidewalk), is safer because you are more visible. Period.
    Doing a modified “California stop” at stop signs seems reasonable, however, simply because of lower speeds (I ride pretty slow), less mass, and much, much better visibility.
    Another subject…lighting at night. My German wife remembers being ticketed in Frankurt/M for not having a light.
    Lenny Anderson, NE Portland

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